I am very pleased to announce that we have accepted Mari Ness’s Sister and Bones as well as Shveta Thakrar’s Lavanya and Deepika for the inaugural issue of Demeter’s Spicebox. I found both stories had managed to capture different hidden truths at the kernel of the AT type 711, a folktale type that is very close to my heart. Both of these stories evoked a powerful emotional response, and I do hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I enjoyed reading them.
An examination of Yeats’s belief in a mystical and supernatural universe with reference to A Vision and “Per Amica Silentia Lunae”
William Butler Yeats is renowned for his poems and plays which have mythic and philosophical structures incorporating the Celtic faerie pantheon as well as Greek mythology. However, suffusing all his works is a deeper and much more cosmic philosophy, of which the belief in the Sidhe, or the Irish Faeries is but a fragment. Within this paper, I examine William Butler Yeats’s vision of the living universe within a larger context, focusing mostly on his thoughts contained within “Per Amica Silentia Lunae” and A Vision. I have chosen these texts in order to better understand and outline his personal philosophy, which continues to confound scholars of his works. This is related to his belief that without symbols one would not be able to fully apprehend mysticism, just as one can only understand the world first from the context of one’s nationality.
Pursuant to this, I explore the nature of Yeats’s belief in the supernatural. I focus specifically on his belief in Devas and Daimons. This includes his immersion into the folkloric tradition, his dealings with the theosophists and the occult, as well as his personal, metaphysical model of the Universe. I am particularly interested in how the gyres, as part of his metaphysical model, influences his works. This is in full consideration of Yeats’s complexity as well as well as the disciplines he subscribed to, all of which consider the cyclic nature of both time and existence. In one of the last letters written by Yeats, he states that while his private philosophies can be found within his works (namely “The Death of Cuchulain”) there should be no obvious sign of it (Letters 917). It should, instead, be like an “old faery tale”, drawing a reader into both the story and the philosophy without any overt sign that he or she is being led, or via which means. The process of telling the tale then becomes synonymous with the parlour tricks of mediums, magicians and other practitioners of magic, where no sign must be given of what is holding everything up. In the same letter to Ethel Mannin he explained his personal philosophy as thus:
To me all things are made of the conflict of two states of consciousness, beings or persons which die each other’s life, live each other’s death. That is true of life and death themselves. Two cones (or whirls), the apex of each in the other’s base. (Letters 917)
The structure that is clearly explained by Yeats is no charlatan’s trick, hinging on a mystical conception of the universe which receives a fairly extensive treatment by him in the prose work A Vision. The inspiration for this work came late in Yeats’s life, after his marriage to Miss Hyde-Lees in 1917. During their honeymoon “in a hotel on the edge of Ashdown Forest” (A Vision 9), his new wife attempted automatic writing, in order to distract him from his worries. Yeats himself has documented this incident within the introduction to A Vision.
On the afternoon of October 24th, 1917, four days after my marriage, my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing. What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. The unknown writer took his theme at first from my just published Per Amica Silentia Lunae. I had made a distinction between the perfection that is from man’s combat with himself and that which is from a combat with circumstance, and upon this simple distinction he built up an elaborate classification of men according to their more or less complete expression of one type or the other. (8)
This unknown writer is later identified as the Daimon of his wife. However, his belief in spirits, ephemeral things and the mystical unknown did not begin with his wife’s automatic writing, nor did it begin with his dabbling in the occult and mystical orders of his time. That they had influenced him is a fact undisputed by his biographers and his critics. Underlying all this is a personal philosophy, and a belief that is anchored in his early belief of the Sidhe and of the world of the Dead. This is a belief in the elemental forces that structure the universe, from the lesser elementals, to the Devas and the Daimons. I would also like to stress that A Vision is not the only work within Yeats’s ouvre which deals with the occult idea of elemental forces structuring the universe and the deeds of Man.
“Per Amica Silentia Lunae” is the predecessor to A Vision. “Per Amica Silentia Lunae” is one of the smaller pieces within Yeats’s Mythologies, a compilation of prose works inclusive of “The Celtic Twilight” “Rosa Alchemica” “The Tables of the Law” and the “Adoration of the Magi”. These works, read in progression begin with an exposition of the otherworld within an Irish context; these narratives may be found within “The Celtic Twilight” and “The Stories of Red Hanrahan” before moving on to more cosmopolitan and mystical ideas. These ideas are in part influenced by the occult influences that he absorbed during his involvement with both the Theosophists and the Society of the Golden Dawn, which he joined after leaving the Theosophist Lodge of Madame Blavatsky.
At this point, it would be relevant for me to look at Yeats’s early adulthood and how he came to be involved with these schools of the occult. Like most Irish boys, Yeats was fed tales of ghostly visitations and of the Sidhe from a very early age. This would be during his childhood in Sligo, where the servants and neighbors of the Yeats household exchanged tales with his mother (Thuente 32). Thuente comments that it is this early influence which served as a foundation for his interest in the occult (32). His first meeting with George Russell in 1884 during his stint as a student at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin further spurred his predilection for the occult (32). Both Yeats and Russell were opposed to the materialism of their times and this marked the start of their friendship. Their subsequent enrolment in Madame Blavatsky’s school of the Occult was a gesture of rejecting Darwinian philosophy; Yeats disbelieved most conventional and scientific theories about how the world was structured.
From a very early period in his poetic career, Yeats focused his poetry on the dual considerations of both life on earth and what lies after. This includes looking at the Irish Faerie pantheon (the Sidhe) as well as other elements. Yeats wavered in his definition of the Sidhe in his many works. At times he mirrors the belief that they are fallen gods, the Celtic Tuatha De Danaan (Folk of the Goddess Danu) (Fairy and Folk Tales 11). At other instances, he asserts that they are the spirits of the Dead (11). At other times Yeats’s belief was aligned with Theosophic and Hindu beliefs that the Faeries were either Devas or Daimons, part of the elemental forces that structure the universe and which act as intermediaries between the mortal and immortal spheres.
Within Yeats’s writing, there exists a startling synchronicity between the Hindu ideas which were adopted by the Theosophists as well as what was present within the Celtic mythic. In the Folk and Fairy Tales of Ireland, Yeats commented that
[B]ehind the visible are chains on chains of conscious beings, who are not of heaven but of the earth, who have no inherent form but change according to their whim, or the mind that sees them (11).
He also declared that one “cannot lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by the hoardes”, as the tangible world we live in is “merely their skin” (11). He further observes that human dreams are not inviolate from these hosts as “in dreams we go amongst them, and play with them, and combat with them” (11). These statements by Yeats in the earlier work is a fore-runner to the thought that is expanded in A Vision. Yeats opined that the beliefs of the Hindus were very much the same as those held by the ancient Druids of Ireland (Skene 4). This belief is upheld by the theosophical doctrine of correspondences. This is the idea that each level of existence is rooted within the unseen world of the spirit (Skene 4); actions within each world or level has repercussions on the other. The theosophical doctrine of correspondences bears correlation with Yeats’s belief that “all existence is arranged cyclically”, furthermore that “in a trance state the soul can leave the body and make contact with other souls and disembodied spirits” (Skene 4). The doctrine of correspondences fits into a bigger picture which I will explore later on in this paper.
The question that begs to be asked at this point is “What are faeries, or the Sidhe to Yeats, personally?” and by extension “How far is this relevant to the ideas developed in A Vision?” Yeats did not reach a conclusion in his summary of the different ways in which faeries have been apprehended within his Folk and Fairy Tales of Ireland (11). A clue may perhaps be found within the “Celtic Twilight”, where he describes with chilling detail his adventure with a friend and a “seeress” who could see them. This is an excerpt of the questions that he asked of what spoke through the medium.
I then asked her whether it was true that she and her people carried away mortals, and if so, whether they put another soul in the place of the one they had taken. ‘We change the bodies,’ was her answer. ‘Are any of you ever born into mortal life?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do I know any who were among your people before birth?’ ‘You do.’ ‘Who are they?’ ‘It would not be lawful for you to know.’ I then asked whether she and her people were not ‘dramatisations of our moods’? ‘She does not understand,’ said my friend, ‘but says that her people are much like human beings, and do most of the things human beings do.’ I asked her other questions, as to her nature, and her purpose in the universe, but only seemed to puzzle her. (Mythologies 56)
In the above excerpt, Yeats asks whether the Sidhe were “dramatisations” of human moods. This idea of “dramatisation” is borne out by his belief that each man (or woman) has his or her own Daimon; the Daimon is in direct opposition to his own personality and yet has the power to both inspire and order about the personality of the human it chooses. The nature of a Daimon is almost the same as that of a Muse, but is much more menacing in tone. The supernatural takes the form of dead spirits, as Yeats believed in the theosophical cyclic view of life, that spirits not yet reincarnated throng the space between the living and the dead. These spirits take many forms, and can be seen as Ghosts, or the Sidhe, Devas or Daimons. At times, these names seem interchangeable for a singular form of ephemeral consciousness.
Richard Ellman, in The Identity of Yeats, remarks that for Yeats, his predisposition towards the Sidhe was not merely Irish-centric, but also a way for him to consider the elements which surrounded the material universe (15). Yeats’s consideration was rooted in the idea that the world was construed of many forces, some of which daimonic. Yeats highlights the idea of the daimon within A Vision where he explains how an experiment his wife made on automatic writing created unprecedented results. He asserts that the system of the Four Faculties and the inspiration behind A Vision comes from his Daimon as well as his wife’s Daimon (22). Yeats believed this metaphysical force to be consciousness behind the automatic writing carried out by his wife.
“…that spirits do not tell a man what is true but create such conditions, such a crisis of fate, that the man is compelled to listen to his Daimon. And again and again they have insisted that the whole system is the creation of my wife’s Daimon and of mine and that it is as startling to them as to us. Mere “spirits”, my teachers say, are the “objective”, a reflection and distortion; reality itself is found by the Daimon in what they call, in commemoration of the Third Person of the Trinity, the Ghostly Self.” (22)
This is not the first time that Yeats has referred to the idea of a Daimon. In “Per Amica Silentia Lunae” he stated that
[…] the Daimon comes not as like to like but seeking its own opposite, for man and Daimon feed the hunger in one another’s hearts. Because the ghost is simple, the man heterogeneous and confused, they are but knit together when the man has found a mask whose lineaments permit the expression of all the man most lacks, and it may be dreads, and of that only. The more insatiable in all desire, the more resolute to refuse deception or an easy victory, the more close will be the bond, the more violent and definite the antipathy. (Mythologies 335-336)
Yeats conceptualized a Daimon as something which is an opposite of the nature of the human it comes to inspire, motivate, or move like a chess player moving a piece across the board. This idea of the daimon is one that has been around since Grecian times, a mysterious energy that compels an artist to paint or a poet to write comes from what Flannery calls “a personal emissary from the supernatural world existing within the unconscious mind” (22). The idea of Daimons has been espoused both by Plato and by his disciple Xenocrates, who “taught that the Daimons are intermediate beings between the divine perfection and human sinfulness”. Xenocrates then went on to divide and further subdivide these beings into “different classes” (Blavatsky par. 8). These entities are believed to be energy beings, by the Theosophists. It would be interesting to note that the Theosophists also believe that on some level all living things are made of energy. One of the subdivisions of these creatures is that of the Devas, which is a term based on Hindu Mythology.
Devas are not far in their nature from the Irish Sidhe. Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder of the School of Theosophy asserts that they are “Elementals of a lower kind”, situated below the idea of higher Daimons or Gods. Within the subdivision of devas are “gnomes, sylphs, fairies, djins, etc.” Blavatsky further opines that these Devas are the
[s]oul of the elements, the capricious forces in Nature, acting under one immutable Law, inherent in these Centres of Force, with undeveloped consciousness and bodies of plastic mould, which can be shaped according to the conscious or unconscious will of the human being who puts himself en rapport with them. (Blavatsky par 3 )
For Yeats, his embodiment of the supernatural is a product of his attempt to show that there is more to life and death than just the acts and experience of living and dying. To him, it was essential to try and reconcile the two. He aimed to show the experience of living. In doing so, he chose to mirror it off the apprehension of the spiritual, and likewise–to aid the apprehension of the supernatural by setting it up against the “living” drama of his longer poems and plays. For a man like Yeats, the occult and the mystical was not merely a dabbling into fanciful arts or even in the showiness of “hocus pocus”, but an opportunity to tap into a complex belief system which derives much of its power from a structure of symbols within symbols. His involvement with the School of Theosophy as well as Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was thus an attempt to find this gateway between the material and the immaterial. Ellman notes that:
Yeats found in occultism, and in mysticism generally, a point of view which had the virtue of warring with accepted beliefs, and of warring enthusiastically and authoritatively […] in his endeavor to construct a symbolism, he went where symbols had always been the usual mode of expression. (Ellman 3)
Yeats did not find much currency in the scientific and Darwinian ideas of existence and therefore sought recourse elsewhere. For instance, Madame Blavatsky’s main modus operandi was to discount what was then current, the theories of evolution of the late nineteenth century (Thuente 33). In Isis Unveiled, she argued that “ancient man, rather than having been an ape, had been in touch with spiritual realities and had possessed a secret wisdom now known only to an ancient brotherhood in Tibet” (33). This secret wisdom was not very different in form and shape from early Celtic and Druidic beliefs of the soul and the soul’s capacity towards transmigration. Thuente notes that Yeats was never fully credulous of Blavatsky’s powers, but yet was determined to prove that “occult phenomena were possible” (33). As a result of this, he subsequently left the Theosophists to join the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. However, a very fundamental idea, that of the “Great Wheel” remained with Yeats and later turned up in A Vision.
In Book I of A Vision, entitled, “The Great Wheel”, Yeats reveals his belief that temporality is something that arises out of the tug of war between Discord and Concord. He relies heavily on the ancient philosopher and physician Empedocles for this beginning part of his theory. In essence, he believed that time and human existence moves in cycles of peace and then discord, that every Golden Age is followed by an Age of Chaos. More than this, he believed that this pattern of two opposing, cyclic forces was the central pattern of existence on its many levels, in pairings such as life-death, age-youth, and mask-being. Yeats’s intricate system, prior to the writing of A Vision, formed the basic structure of most of his more enigmatic plays and poems. The influences behind this system come from both folklore and the ancient writings, which fueled the mystic movements that Yeats belonged to.
In A Vision, Yeats mentioned that he is “instructed” by both the Daimons of his wife and himself. In coming up with the “phases” of the Great Wheel he also comes up with the idea of the Four Faculties of Man, which, together with other external forces seem to determine the life course of a human being. These Four are attributes set within the cones of the gyre. The primary cones seem to mirror reality “but are in themselves pursuit and illusion” (73). Yeats describes the antithetical cone as an “emotional and aesthetic” cone. The Four Faculties are grouped into the Will and the Mask as well as the Creative Mind and the Body of Fate. In the particular dialectic of opposites that Yeats uses, both these groupings of Faculties are further subdivided in opposing directions. This means that the Will and the Creative Mind belongs to the antithetical cone, which moves into the inner world of desire and the imagination (73). The Mask and the Body of Fate belongs to the primary cone, which deals with outward things instead of with outward thought.
The Will and the Mask is further understood to be the will and its object, or what is known in philosophy as the “Ought” and “Is” properties of things. The Creative Mind and the Body of Fate are the inward thought and its ultimate object. To put in simple words, the first pairing is of the individual within a smaller context and the second is within a larger context. Within both groupings the Faculties are paired in accordance to their opposites. There is a reason for this. Yeats later explains that these faculties are not meant to be the “abstract categories of philosophy” but are, rather “the result of the Four memories of the Daimon, or ultimate self of that man” (83). In keeping with his dramatic background, Yeats calls this Daimon the “stage manager” while the human who belongs to it is an actor. This is a recurrent theme in many mythologies, inclusive of the Celtic, Greek and Roman as well as Indian Myths that Yeats referred to–that of the Gods (or the Sidhe) meddling in the affairs of humans. This theme and is expanded further in the Great Wheel, which is Yeats’s peculiarly personal and comprehensive mythology.
These four points, when looked at from an angle represents the center of a circle, or of the “gyres”–the spiral of the universe or the portal in between worlds. Seiden, in Yeats: The Poet as a Mythmaker, sees the principal symbol in A Vision as the Great Wheel. The Great Wheel, which is the most basic view of the Gyre,
[…] never ceases to move. Its imaginary revolutions signify not only all the antinomies (those opposites which contain each other) but also the various cyclical patterns of death and rebirth. And, presumably, these cycles and antinomies can be found in and be used to explain every detail in the universe: the psychological life of mankind, the whole course of human history, the movements of the four seasons and the heavenly bodies, and the life after death. Yeats’s Great Wheel, as he said, is a macrocosmic symbol. (Seiden 14)
Despite devoting a book to Yeats’s execution of A Vision, Seiden is markedly skeptical about the validity of its contents. However, it is relevant that Yeats did not base this idea of a geometrically arranged universe in air; nor did he dream it up all by himself. Philosophers from Ancient Greece and Rome, the Druids of Ancient Ireland, the Hindus, Buddhists, Buddhist Zens and Taoists all believe in reincarnation and the Wheel of Life. However, the details of this particular belief may vary according to custom and culture. The movements of elements from the four corners of the world and the mystical origins of them are also present in Native American lore. I personally believe that in forming the complex patterns of A Vision, Yeats was digging back into his roots, trying to find the source of something that he believed his whole life, knitting it into a much bigger philosophy of life. Ellman has his own view on this. He posits that
[w]hat Yeats hoped to do was to bring man and nature into harmony again, and to reconcile the demands of intellect with those of the imagination. Symbolism would pull the external world back into the mind by establishing the correspondence of nature and mental states. It would make the connections among the personal, national, and natural worlds. (24)
I assert that Yeats had a mind that was constantly seeking to make connections between things that he saw and perceived in life; it seems to be a natural leap to turn the connections of symbol to symbol into a larger pattern and framework. While this may not necessarily appeal to the postmodernist who deals with fractured states of being, it is not invalid and is most certainly helpful in the search to understand the deeper roots of human existence and beliefs. It is because of this need to seek a connection that he inevitably turned to the Theosophists.
Yeats had no illusions about the reception that the book might meet. In a letter to Olivia Shakespear, dated the 9th of February 1931, he notes with wry acceptance that “the young men I write for may not read my Vision–they may care too much for poetry–but they will be pleased that it exists.” (Letters 781). He goes on to state that “Even my simplest poems will be the better for it” (781), acknowledging that he has, as a matter of fact, structured what he had believed, and either consciously or unconsciously, applied in his poetry and plays for decades. What he has created is in essence an esoteric myth, made of many sources and woven together within the loom of his own personal convictions. This is acknowledged further in the following excerpt from the same letter to Mrs. Shakespear:
I think I have done one good deed in clearing out of the state from death to birth all the infinities and eternities, and picturing a state as ‘phenomenal’ as that from birth to death. I have constructed a myth, but then one can believe in myth-one only assents to philosophy.
Flannery notes that A Vision was meant to be the “imaginative expression of a poet’s religious faith- a faith that could only be truly justified and evaluated in terms of its effect upon the unconscious as well as the conscious mind” (21). It can also be seen as a personal way of trying to make sense of what doesn’t make sense, that mysterious, inner light of inspiration that poets from the Romantic Age, such as Blake, Shelley and Coleridge had wrote about, and which Yeats took one step further. In the verse introduction to “Per Amica Silentia Lunae” Yeats writes, or rather, summons this unknown spirit
Because I seek an image, not a book.
Those men that in their writings are most wise
Own nothing but their blind, stupefied hearts.
I call to the mysterious one who yet
Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream
And look most like me, being indeed my double,
And prove of all imaginable things
The most unlike, being my anti-self,
And, standing by these characters, disclose
All that I seek; […] (Mythologies 324)
This thing that he seeks, he personalises as his Muse, and later goes on to specify as his Daimon. This is a concept that was first introduced to him when he joined and participated in the occult and magical society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn from 1890 to 1922 (Flannery 24). One of the key concepts behind the society was that the human psyche encompassed “archetypal images emanating from the higher supernatural world” which is called Anima Mundi (Astral Light). This definition is in line with that which is contained within Carl Jung’s “Phenomenology of Self” that of the “collective unconscious”. Thus, the Daimon can be seen to be synonymous with the Jungian archetype, one that urges the human, which it is supposed to guide, upwards (Flannery 24). This idea receives further clarification in Book II of A Vision, “The Completed Symbol”.
“The Completed Symbol” is essentially a dissemination of the symbols and concepts, which have been placed in “The Great Wheel”. In the preceding volume, as I have earlier explained, the primary cone of the Gyre is seen as the apparent state of reality, which is in actual fact illusive. Yeats then went on to state that actual reality is the “sphere” (73). In “The Completed Symbol”, he states that the “ultimate reality” is something which is in a state of neither nor, that is, “neither one nor many, concord nor discord” (193). Instead, it is “symbolised as a phaseless sphere” (193) This is a world that “can be symbolised but cannot be known” and is again, in line with the Jungian idea of the “Collective Unconscious”. Book II can thus be seen as the macro version of Book I, which moves from the individual to contemplate a much larger context, moving into the contemplation of temporality by disseminating the idea of the phases of the Year.
Here, Yeats moves into a peculiar realm of thought shared by astrology, ancient philosophy and mysticism as well as psychology. The classifications of different lunar and solar cycles also seem to determine the fate of the individual. Here too, the mysterious hand of Daimons are sighted, as Yeats moves on to consider Daimons of a much larger context called monads, as can be seen in the following passage.
Nations, cultures, schools of thought may have their Daimons. These Daimons may move through the Great Year like individual men and women and are said to use men and women as their bodies, to gather and disperse those bodies at will. Leibniz, whose logical monads resemble somewhat my perceptive Daimons, thought that there must be monads much greater than those of individual men and women. ( 209)
In book III of A Vision, “The Soul in Judgement”, Yeats goes on to consider the concept of reincarnation and the transmigration of the soul as well as how this is patterned out in the great drama of life. He notes that some people are either primary or antithetical to others, and are fated to meet each other again and again via each turning of the Wheel. Again, this is a retelling of Hindu, Buddhist and Zen beliefs, but when it comes into Yeats’s hands, it gets structured within “the effect of the whirring and interlocking of the gyres” (237). Therefore all of existence is caused by the meeting of opposites and primaries, interrupted by the bigger or smaller hand of fate–“gyres may be interrupted or twisted by greater gyres, divide into two lesser gyres or multiply into four and so on” (237). He also states that when one human has to expiate for crimes committed against another in one life, he is reborn in the next life for the act of expiation. This act of expiation is more to the Daimon of the person, who acts as a symbol or even a chess piece for the said Daimon (238).
The fourth book of A Vision, deals with the Great Wheel within the ultimate temporal context, that of “The Great Year of The Ancients”. This part of A Vision goes on to consider moments in history such as the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ as well as the murder of Julius Caesar. He is in fact referring to recurrent events in the history of humanity. This is a further, macrocosmic reference to the Doctrine of Correspondences, which he learnt earlier on in his life with Madame Blavatsky. This is also based on the ancient, Greek ideas of Empedocles and Heraclitus, that “the universe had first one form, and then its opposite in perpetual alternation” (247). He goes on to enunciate the different ideas about the Great Year, for example, the Stoics thought it was in divisions of “365 days of 15,000 years apiece” (251).
Yeats concluded by adding that the wheel of the Four Principles, which make up the gyres, completes its movement in four thousand years, where golden ages, would give way to ages of destruction. The final and fifth book, “Dove or Swan” explains further the idea of the Great Wheel, breaking it up into two thousand years apiece, based on the different cones of the gyre, dividing it into the ages before and after the advent of Christianity. He enters into a further dissemination of history based on the cyclic pattern he had earlier laid out. He went on to consider the fact of the beginning of the gyre, citing as an example, “the materialistic movement at the end of the seventeenth century” (297) which obviously was a great period of flux, between the medieval and the renaissance. This ends the main discourse of A Vision, what remained was his epilogue, which is at “The End of the Cycle”.
There is a similarity between the thought espoused by the Theosophists (Madame Blavatsky and A.P. Sinnett) and that which is found within A Vision. Seiden asserts there are no gyres present within the Theosophist doctrine. However, the cyclic movements are a cogent similarity, as this is at the root of the doctrine of correspondences. The Theosophist pralaya or destructive impulse can be identified with the contracting gyre within Yeats’s pattern (37). Yeats prefers to call it- Discord. An expanding gyre, which is known as Concord by Yeats, is therefore the Theosophist manvantara or the creative impulse in the universe (37). Between these two forces are what move both history and nature, creating great epochs of peace and also of discord and disharmony. The Theosophists posit that these cyclic movements of death and rebirth are drawing humanity closer and closer into a golden age where all of nature will be in harmony with God, something that would perhaps be identifiable with the Buddhist state of nirvana.
This theory of opposite forces being the catalyst for movement is the structure behind Yeats’s belief that a Daimon has to be the complete antithesis of the man (Mythologies 356). This is found in the forerunner to A Vision, “Per Amica Silentia Lunae”. In his written discourse on the Anima Mundi, Yeats stresses that
There are two realities, the terrestrial and the condition of fire. All power is from the terrestrial condition, for there all opposites meet and there only is the extreme of choice possible, full freedom. (Mythologies 356)
This marks a sequence of movement out of which “music and all rest” emanates. This is what fuels the poet and artist, in Yeats’s opinion, the same force that moves throughout the universe. He then goes on to say that
After so many rhythmic beats the soul must cease to desire its images, and can, as it were, close its eyes. When all sequence comes to an end, time comes to an end, and the soul puts on the rhythmic or spiritual body or luminous body and contemplates all the events of its memory and every possible impulse in an eternal possession of itself in one single moment, That condition is alone animate, and all the rest is fantasy, and from thence come all the passions and, some have held, the very heat of the body. (Mythologies 357)
What is evident here is that Yeats was creating his own mythology, of what and how things move and end, of chaos, flux, and the inevitable end. He seeks to examine the source of passion, inspiration and the reasons why people act in conflicting manners. As an extension of this, he taps into the old myth of the Daimon, weaving it into his pattern even as he lays the blame at its door. These Daimons can also be identified as the Greek divine spirits or Gods. The Theosophists believed, like the Hindus, that each human contained within his or her self, a divine being, one that shaped not only the host soul or body, but which connected with a bigger pattern and design. Yeats believed that this machinery worked by virtue of the doctrine of opposites. He posits that any “ Daimon is drawn to whatever man or, if its nature is more general, to whatever nation it most differs from (362)”. From this connection, it goes on to shape “into its own image the antithetical dream of man or nation” (362). Yeats then goes on to assert that it is always “an impulse from some Daimon that gives to our vague, unsatisfied desire, beauty, a meaning, and a form all can accept” (362).
The Daimons were an idea that is not so alien to the Celtic mind of Yeats, who was raised on tales of how the Sidhe pixy-led the inhabitants of Ireland, inspiring them with music and poetry, even as they wore their human souls down to a husk. One such being was the Leanhaun Shee or Leanan Sidhe, who receives mention in Yeats’s Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland. In that volume she receives mention as the “Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes” (76). It is my contention that it is this self-same figure that is later evolved, de-feminized, liberated from an Irish context, into the much larger context of the Daimon. The question to now be asked is, where has this journey into the secrets told to Yeats by his “Daimon” led him?
To answer this question, it is perhaps relevant, to consider both his epilogue to A Vision, and the last letter ever written by William Butler Yeats. At “The End of The Cycle” Yeats expresses that he has felt “the convictions of a lifetime melt though at an age when the mind should be rigid, and others take their place, and these in turn give way to others” (301). He goes on to contemplate the ultimate symbol that he is drawn up, and comes to the conclusion that although he has shed some light on some things, most of the secrets of his Daimons remain intact–“But nothing comes-though this moment was to reward me for all my toil. Perhaps I am too old” (301). However, what he has toiled for is not without its merit, for it remains as a helpful guide or codex to his poetical and dramatic works. It is in fact a kind of mythos which hints at much, structures much more, but at the very end, keeps its own council. As Yeats says with resignation at the very end of A Vision, “[d]oubtless, for it can do all things and knows all things, it knows what it will do with its own freedom but it has kept the secret” (301). But this is not the ultimate end of this story of Yeats’s search for a mystical truth or structure. The end perhaps comes in these words in Yeats’s last letter, to Lady Elizabeth Pelham, dated the 4th of January 1939.
I am happy, and I think full of an energy I had despaired of. It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put all into a phrase I say, ‘Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.’ I must embody it in the completion of my life. The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence… (Letters 294)
This letter is an acceptance that philosophy, must sometimes bow down to the simplicity of a difficult-to-pin-down and yet ineluctable Truth. Perhaps this is the best possible ending for the saga of Yeats’s quest to understand the mystical universe. Despite everything that he had strove to capture, through his various attempts to resurrect a dying culture, he had, at the very last found that both spiritual and material life, remained, at the very end, a great mystery. This mystery can only be traced to its base–at the simplicity of the folk tale or the childhood belief. Therefore, in a cyclic fashion appropriate to the Celtic method of storytelling, this paper can only ultimately lead us back, as Yeats as led us back, to the beginning of his involvement in the world of the supernatural. The conclusion reaches backs to his roots, and the roots at the psyche of every human, child or adult. The answer, which is not alien to the Jungian analyst, lies shrouded in the elegant simplicity of our childhood myths.
Blavatsky, Helena. Petrovna, <http://www.blavatsky.net/blavatsky/arts/Elementals.htm>Elementals,1893.
Ellmann, Richard. The Identity of Yeats. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.
Flannery, James W. W.B. Yeats and the Idea of a Theatre: The Early Abbey Theatre in Theory and Practice. New Haven and London: Yale U P, 1976.
Jung, Carl. Aion: Phenomenology of the Self. New York: Princeton U P, 1969.
Seiden, Morton Irving. William Butler Yeats: The Poet as a Mythmaker 1865-1939. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc, 1975.
Skene, Reg. The Cuchulain Plays of W.B. Yeats: A Study. London and Basingstoke: The Macmillan P Ltd: 1974.
Thuente, Mary Helen. W.B.Yeats and Irish Folklore. Totowa, New Jersey: Gill and Macmillan: 1980.
Wade, Allen, ed. The Letters of W.B. Yeats. Soho, London: Rupert Hart-Davies, 1954.
Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Plays of W.B. Yeats. London and Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1953.
_________________. A Vision. London: Macmillan, 1937.
_________________. Mythologies. New York: Touchstone, 1998.
(Image: Photograph of W. B. Yeats from the Lissadell Yeats Exhibition)
by Nin Harris
The South East Asian region consists of hybrid nations straddling the waterways and trade routes between India and China. Rich with much-disputed spices, regions yielding gold, tin ore and precious wood such as teak, the clashes between different cultures, civilisations and religious beliefs were inevitable. Sometimes, there would be assimilation, whether peaceful or violent. Growing up, I enjoyed tales of pre-Islamic empires such as Sailendra and Srivijaya, which spanned major parts of the Nusantara (the Malay Archipelago), as well as the stories of Indochinese empires and the clash between the forces of Siam and China in their bid for the Malay Peninsula. This historical backdrop provides the fodder for many stories. The tales of Thailand and Cambodia are rich with Buddhist iconography melded with local animism, while the Malay archipelagoes developed their own unique, intrinsic culture which assimilated the storytelling patterns of both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions with that of local animism. Later, as Islam became the main religion, the Islamic motif added a new, distinct note within the weaving of the tales.
Looking for the translations of some of the more obscure texts presented me with a challenge. I have included some personal translations included on blogs, as well as those found on the pages of commercial websites. One might say that to a certain extent, tourism commodifies these stories, but perhaps the connection between commerce and folklore is more entrenched than we think it is. The following is a list of fairytales, folklore and mythology found in some South East Asian countries, along with annotations. I would definitely recommend following up on this.
- While I was stalking the folklore and myths of Thailand and Indo-China, I came across a reference to the Himmapan Forest which intrigued me. The Himmapan Forest is said to exist somewhere between India and Nepal.
- Stories about the forest are steeped in both Buddhist lore and local folktales, and many of the figures in Thai art which have these hybrid animals are said to live within this mystical forest. I was particularly taken by the Thep Kinnaree and would like to do a visual representation of it someday!
- There are many other creatures within the Himmapan Forest, however, and here are artistic depictions of Thai mythical creatures such as the Naga, the Hong, the Kinnaree, and the Garuda (some cross-over with Indonesia here). Life in Vientiane has an intriguing account of the Himmapan Forest, describing it as a “secret palace” where there are people who are half-bird and half-human.
- Nusantara Folklore is an Indonesian website which collects and displays folklore from all countries in the Nusantara region.
- A fascinating page offering the basics of Indonesian Myths and Folktales, connects it to Indian Mythology. In particular, the writer explores the evolution of the Five Pandawas who were found in the Mahabarata and the Bhatarayuda within Indonesian folklore.
- I also discovered a page about the Myths of Origins and the Deluge of Indonesia, I was particularly taken with this, because I’d been looking up different versions and manifestations of the Deluge. It’s inevitable that an archipelagic region would have tales such as these.
- This waterlogged tale from Indonesia is a tale of transformation and retribution, found within the Legend of Lake Toba.
- Unbeknownst to most of the western world, the Malay Archipelago had more than one woman warrior or queen in its arsenal of tales. In Hikayat Panji Semarang, the entire heroic romance in old Indonesian Malay features a female princess who cross-dresses as a man so she can be a warrior! One of the most famous Malay female warrior queens is Cik Siti Wan Kembang. I found it interesting that the most helpful pages on Cik Siti Wan Kembang were anecdotal blog posts but it was inevitable. Daring to Speak Bahasa is a thoughtful post which touches on malay folklores and legends. The blogger writes about how the legends personally affected and influenced her, delving into the complexities of Malaysian race politics. On the other hand, Reunited in Negeri Cik Siti Wan Kembang is a less political blog post detailing a journey into Kelantan, with foodbloggery and a painting of the warrior queen.
- Another strong female icon within Malay folklore is The Princess of Mount Ophir, or Puteri Gunung Ledang. This story revolves around a princess (or demigoddess) who lived up a mountain and who swore to take no one as her husband. Of course, such an oath would be a challenge to most powerful patriarchs, and so the legend was born. The Fairy Princess of Mount Ophir (Puteri Gunung Ledang) features both the story and the popular culture references in Malaysia by Sejarah Melayu, which is in itself an extensive site dedicated to the documents, archival research and folktales behind and surrounding the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) manuscript. Malacca Tourism’s pithy and concise (as well as accurate) version of the Puteri Gunung Ledang tale is also a helpful read, particularly because it doesn’t serve up the overblown, romanticized versions that now exist due to popular culture. Like many of these tales, mysticism is tied with a message about the abuse of power.
- Another example of this may be found in the Mahsuri stories.The legend of Mahsuri is the prototype tale of the virtuous wife who has been wronged by nobility, due to gossip, ill-will and the abuse of power. Up till the late-80s, it was said that the island of Langkawi was put under a curse for seven generations by Mahsuri, which is why it could never develop. Around the 1990s, there was a tourism boom on Langkawi, and it was said that the curse had lifted. Many of the attractions on the island revolve around Mahsuri’s story, and there is also a musical about the whole thing, which I saw as a kid. Here’s a fairly accurate and decently written rendition, for the website of an Australian Satay House, of all things!
- One of the things I love about the stories of the Far East as well as those of South East Asia is the deep romanticism mixed with pragmatism. There are elements within these tales which are very much public-spirited, containing elements of therapy or catharsis. Happy endings are not typical or required; some tales may be moralistic, while others are peculiarly enigmatic. The legend of Ulek Mayang has always been one of my favourite stories, and is particularly enigmatic. The story is part of a ritualistic performance that includes song, dance and mantras. Like many, I was first introduced to it via a dance performance on a school concert day. The story put chills through me, as it should, because it was both otherworldly and incredibly sad, filled with the human longing for different realities. This is pretty much consistent in other East Malaysian performances, such as the Mak Yong. The story is of the relationship between the fishermen and the spirits of the sea (or mermaid princesses), and is about seven playful sea princesses who caused the fishermen to go unconscious. There are mantras within this performance which has all the hallmarks of psychotherapeutic healing linked to ritual (The book, Religious and Social Ritual: Interdisciplinary Explorations edited by Michael B. Aune and Valerie DeMarinis has very good examples and explanations of this. I’ve used it before in my Masters in Literature thesis, and it will likely be helpful for those of you interested in ritual.). Here’s a page with a clear, concise and well-written exposition of the legend.
- For further reading, First Day Covers has a page on Malaysian folktales, served in concise paragraph form. Also, here’s an interesting variation of the Raja Bersiong(fanged king) story I was not aware of, related to the origins of the town, Baling. And yes, Raja Bersiong is another wicked king, who developed a penchant for human blood in his curry after a cook accidentally cut his hand while cooking a royal feast.
- Africa has Brer Rabbit, Malaysia has its own, witty little mammal, Sang Kancil. The fragile mouse-deer is an iconic figure within Malaysian folktales and children of different races would have been told these stories both at home and at school. Most of the tales are about resourcefulness when you’re outwitted by bigger and stronger animals in the forest. Sejarah Melayu details the connection between the Kancil and the legend of the founding of the Malacca Sultanate by Parameswara. I’ve always been interested by the significance of the tree within this tale. The Sultanate takes its name from the Malacca tree, but the entire experience is mystical.
- Outwitting a Crocodile seems to be the most well-represented Sang Kancil tale on the world wide web, but I am interested in finding more.
Cambodia evokes images of a hidden empire within a tropical forest, with sacred apsaras guarding its ornate, stonework enclosures. I was enchanted by the following sites which gave me a glimpse into Khmer folktales which were a mixture of folk wisdom and Buddhist beliefs.
- Khmer Folktales by My Cambodia News.
- A page of Khmer Folktales by Cornell University’s South East Asia Outreach division.
- Khmer Fashion Lab’s translated Khmer folktales.
- To Sell a Donkey (folktale).
- Alamat, A Phillipine Folktales, Myths and Legend Page is a site that lists out the different folktales, myths and legends according to different elemental domains, featuring creation myths as well as legends. Beautiful in both its organisation and its sentiment, I would definitely list this as a must-visit if you’re interested in pinoy myths and folklore.
- For something a little older, Folktales from the Phillipines by D.L. Ashliman provides interesting reading and context, while, for something more local, there’s a blog dedicated to Pinoy folktales.
- Vietnam has one of the most intriguing myths of origin I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. According to the folktale, the people of Vietnam sprang into existence from the union of the descendants of Fairies and Dragons. Recently, there was an exhibit in the Children’s Museum of Houston based around the intriguing folktales of Vietnam. Elsewhere on the internet, there exists a .pdf file with five of the core tales which are featured in the exhibition. If any of you had the pleasure of going to the exhibition, we’d love to hear from you about it!
- There are also other Vietnamese fairytales which do have some connections to variants found everywhere in the world, the Tale of Tam and Cam, is a good example, as it has some correlations to the Cinderella variant, which has appeared in the Malay Archipelago as Bawang Merah, Bawang Putih (red onion, garlic).
- If you’re intrigued and would like to read more, this website has a list of books featuring Vietnamese folk and fairytales.
- Thanks to the output of bloggers as well as academic folklorists such as Wajuppa Tossa of Northern Illinois University’s Lao Folk Literature course, there are sites which are treasure troves filled with Lao folklore. Dr Tossa has also authored a book along with Kongdeuane Nettavong, edited by Margaret Read MacDonald, Lao Folktales. An excerpt from the book may be found here, featuring the folktale The Crow and the Peacock.
- The Laotian blogger Nye has a good write-up on Lao Folktales here, featuring one of the stories, Phi Kongkoi, the Ghost Named Kongkoi. Also on her blog, a write-up about an intriguing tale called The Birth of Xiang Ming features a video presentation.
- Another book that anyone interested in Lao folktales should look out for is Ten of the Best Lao Folktales.
- The writer O. Dohn Paditsone has a couple of intriguing write-ups of Lao folktales. I enjoyed reading The Magic White Swan as well as The Cresent Moon Comb.
This list is by no means extensive, and is meant as a starter list both for the lover of folklore and fairytales and for writers interested in world folklore, myths and legends. If you have more knowledge about the folk and fairytales of any of the South East Asian regions listed as well as those I have not yet explored, do feel free to comment in this post. Educate us!
This post is an edited version of Nin Harris’s collection of annotated links for The Mythogenetic Grove and is part of her Arthropod Trails series of posts.The featured mixed-media painting is “The Lilypad Princess” by Nin Harris, inspired by the stories of the ancient kingdoms of the Malay Archipelago.
Demeter’s Spicebox has moved! “The microzine is now known as Delinquent’s Spice, to suit the evolution of this venue for hypertext fiction. However, DS remains true to its core ethos — to be a boundary-challenging venue for the retelling/re-envisioning of lesser-known folktale and fairytale variants.”
Please visit Delinquent’s Spice, where you can find the first three issues originally hosted here.
This post will remain in our archives.
We associate Demeter with the symbol of cornucopia, with food, harvests and abundance. She is also, in Greek mythology, a mother and a Divine nursemaid. As a grieving mother, she was healed by laughter through Baubo’s cheekiness. She was thus implicated in one of the oldest stories about solidarity through humour and storytelling. I’d like to imagine Demeter with a spicebox, because she was also a nursemaid. Every nursemaid, whether Divine or mortal, needs an arsenal of stories. And every storyteller should have a spicebox, a repository of abundance, of different tale types, facts, the less tangible salt and pepper of human experience as well as emotions.
I have always been interested in the connection between things, and, the connection between cooking and writing. We allow ourselves more license in cuisine than we do with any other creative form –and yes, I do consider cooking an art-form. Sure, there are the purists who would absolutely swear that there’s only one way to cook a certain dish, and usually it has to do with the first time they ate a dish, or how their mother or grandmother cooked it. But you then take a much-loved recipe, and you cook it for loved ones. It changes. Your childhood favourite will adapt with your cooking tools, your available ingredients and personal taste. Well, unless you’re a scientist and a stickler for measurements as well as precise adherence to recipes.
Angela Carter, my personal heroine when it comes to fairytales, compared the art of telling a fairytale to the craft of making potato soup. It shifts with each teller. The ingredients change. The container changes, but it is still potato soup. It is this dichotomy between mutability and trueness to form which intrigues me about fairytales and folklore. And this is why I pitched Demeter’s Spicebox, as just that, a spicebox.
We allow ourselves more freedom with spices and herbs than we do with stories.
Why is that? There are many reasons, and we have seen the results of various debates regarding cultural appropriation. I respect a lot of these viewpoints, and think that when we write about cultures that are not our own, we should proceed with caution and respect. But I do not think this means we should not proceed at all.
I’ve always had an appetite for fusion cuisine. I love the traditional, but I think we have to open ourselves to the in-between. Most cultures were never meant to be locked in stasis, and if we expect them to be locked in stasis, fixed in time, within a glass container, we aren’t doing them justice. A hybrid myself, I’ve always nurtured a love for the in-between. How could I not? To hate the in-between, to hate hybridity would be to despise myself.
My ancestors came from the island of Sri Lanka, the province of Fuzhou in China, from the islands of Java and Madura, and it has been said, even as far as the Middle-east. The narratives of these different nations birthed both history and migration, which led to the creation of me. And when I was a little girl, I was taken to another island, the heart of the British Empire, where I buried my head in countless fairytale books, before I returned to the Equatorial heat of my country. These interconnected narratives from different cultures shaped my character. These narratives made me. And I am sure different stories made you, as well. I want to know these stories. I want to be fed these stories. I want these layers of how we perceive different tale types to mingle with each other; I want the different spices to bind with different flavours in different ways.
Stories are immediate, fairytales even more so, because they contain those essential, landmark markers of experience and humanism. These stories were once told by old ladies, the sibyls and wise women Marina Warner wrote about. They were also told by wise men, sages, cunningmen, gleemen, the penglipur lara of the Malay Archipelagoes as well as the living storytellers of Marrakesh, amongst others. It’s not hard to imagine, that Demeter, as a nursemaid in Eleusis, also told stories. It’s not hard to imagine that she would have a spicebox. Because even back in the day, in Ancient Greece there was movement and migration between nations, and nothing was static. Everything was fluid.
So, what is Demeter’s Spicebox about, anyway? It’s about making soup. It’s about making curry. It’s about abundance, and it’s about layers, while still remaining true to the fairytale type, and honouring the culture within which we situate those types. It’s about being both adventurous and ethical. Not only are we inviting you to retell lesser-known fairytale types, we are asking you to do this in a manner best suited for the WWW. We’ll be providing submissions guidelines for this–they include the placing of textual objects, which will create layers in the storytelling. What do I mean by this?
Imagine this: A young girl growing up in post World-War II South East Asia, maybe in Myanmar, maybe in Thailand, has always seen a certain poster, stuck upon the wall. It is actually an advertisement for tobacco, by a Dutch company. It came into the possession of her family by way of her Uncle who used to work for the British military. She may or may not be the protagonist of a new fairytale type, but this poster was originally in someone else’s story. It was in the pocket of a Gurkha who was brought all the way from India. And perhaps this was a story someone else told, based on a different fairytale type. Perhaps, prior to this tale, perhaps we have seen the production of this poster in London. Perhaps London was part of another fairytale type, and perhaps the young boy who was entrusted with the distribution of these posters grew up and found himself in India. Perhaps you will choose to talk about the effects of colonialism within these tales. Perhaps too, you would like to highlight the cultures within your stories.
All three layers will have protagonists within different fairytale types, which show not just wonder, but how these fairytales are connected to that enduring quality that should be in any given tale–our humanity, whether shared or otherwise. Of course, none of these tales have been told yet (and we’re not suggesting you tell us exactly these tales!) but these storytelling layers are peculiarly suited for a hyper-textual medium. By creating these textual objects (or people, or animals) that travel in between stories, we further highlight movement between stories, between cultures, between individuals.
Finally, I have to add that Demeter’s Spicebox is an experiment, and like all experiments, it can go either way. It could be a success, or it could be a dismal failure. Of course, since I pitched it and I love this idea, I don’t want it to fail, but I also want writers who understand it is an experiment, who are willing to be brave, willing to straddle that dichotomy of being both fluid and yet true to the fairytale type/culture, and more importantly, to the craft of writing itself.